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Endurance in France

2008 Sangatte
Images by Team Nellie

Endurance at Sangatte

Why would anyone come to Sangatte?

Images by Team Nellie
A small village huddled on the coast, where it may have been raining forever, Sangatte seems to exist primarily as a tucked-away service area for nearby Calais, the Channel Tunnel Terminal, and Cite Europe, an enormous shopping centre. Its hotels are not hotels in the accepted sense, involving hospitality, bonhommie, and at the very least a bar, but rooming houses for businessmen on too tight a budget to check in to the Ibis or Holiday Inn. Who would holiday here, when only half an hour along the coast lie the natural beauties of Marquenterre (marshlands, dunes, wildlife, seafood restaurants) or the splendours of Deauville (casinos, racetracks)? The night before the race I asked a man who was having a cigarette in the street if there was anywhere we could get something to eat and drink. "In Sangatte?" He gave me a you-must-be-from-out-of-town sort of look and shook his head sadly. "No. You must go to Calais". He said "Calais" as if it were Paris. Believe me, it isn't.

Whatever it's like now, Sangatte has its histories, most of them involving arrival or departure of some kind. Crossing the English Channel here, at its narrowest point, has long exerted a fascination. In 1875 a young English army captain, Matthew Webb was the first to swim across; enough of a feat, in those times, for him to become a national hero, with his portrait forever emblazoned on the box of a certain brand of matches. Successful swims are no longer news. No-one, walking to the water's edge for a paddle, is surprised to be met by an emerging athlete wearing goggles and covered with lard. On good-weather days you can practically walk across from head to head, thus saving yourself the price of a ferry ticket - until recently, crossing the Channel was the most expensive journey per mile on the planet.

Webb died a couple of years later, drowned trying to swim the whirlpool at the base of the Niagara Falls. Hubert Latham, a Brit adopted by the French as one of their own, was gored to death by a water buffalo, a correct way to go for a certain type of playboy adventurer. Before this he had made the crossing from Crystal Palace, just outside London, all the way to Paris by balloon. He then bid to be the first to cross by airoplane, in a race to do so sponsored by the Daily Mail newspaper, but his engine failed not far out. He glided in the direction of a passing ship, landed in the water, stepped on board and lit a steely-nerved cigarette (presumably with a Webb's match). Shortly afterwards Louis Bleriot, Latham's only serious competitor in the race, completed the crossing.

Latham has a monument erected on the Cap Blanc Nez, one of the higher cliffs overlooking the Channel, from whence his flight started. Bleriot has an entire section of coastline named after him; Bleriot Plage. At low tide you can ride 15 kilometres along here then duck off the beach and climb up winding and stony tracks to the rolling farmland above. And that's why endurance riders come to Sangatte.

Even though nearly half the entries were "etrangers" it would be stretching a point to emphasise the international aspect of the event this year. England, as has been noted, is near enough for the five members of the "International Development Squad", here to gain experience of international competition, to be jokingly blamed for bringing the weather with them. They crossed from the UK a few days early - which turned out to have been a good thing, as two UK-based UAE competitors, having waited to make the trip until the day before the vetting, were not allowed over because of high seas. Four came down from Belgium, not significantly further away than the UK, including Kristel van den Abeele, European Champion 2006, here riding Epson de la Bruskaie with whom she was placed eighth in those championships last year. Other than one rider with an Algerian licence, everyone else in the field of 25 was French.

Images by Team Nellie
As seven o'clock approached horses warmed up on the beach. Of the Brits the 16.2 hh Anglo-Arab El Sabio, an unlikely-looking endurance prospect of great beauty, drew admiring gazes from knowledgeable French connections with his dressage outline. The wind whipped away the commentator's voice as he counted them down to the start - "C'est parti!" - and they're off, at a sensible pace, for four kilometres of beach work. Then they slip between a clutch of beach huts and cross a road, clatter down the side of some houses, skirt the back of a scrubby paddock, and start climbing up to the high ground. Everywhere there are rocky outcrops that, on closer inspection, reveal themselves to be the ruins of German coastal defences; machine gun nests and tank traps left for nature finally to disarm. For ride followers there's a sense that it's all taking place in the hinterlands, in the gaps between and the spaces left, until the horses get out into the open, where they always seem to be far away. Perhaps the whole thing may have gone unnoticed by anyone not involved in the ride. Maybe a few motorists on the cliff road past the Latham monument may have caught a glimpse, through the misty rain, and wondered what was happening...

Images by Team Nellie
At the 15k point British riders have taken a lead. Netty Masterson on El Sabio, and Lorna Kidson's appropriately-named French Lieutenant, are some minutes ahead. For both horses this is their first time over the distance, and this is a deceptive ride. It's easy to be tempted to go fast, but the farm tracks are hard, and slippery when wet, and sand brings its own concerns. They're taking the race to a field that includes a European Champion as well as some extremely experienced home competitors, such as Allan Leon, a young international rider from Brittany who's on Maelle de Nieres, whom he trains for the Sultan of Brunei. Is front-running a good idea?

They climb back down to the beach for a 14k canter to the vet gate and arrive first, but recoveries are not fast. Young Frenchman Damien Lamoriniere presents to the vets and slips into the lead. El Sabio and Jill Kent's Bitterwell Spirit (UK) are just behind him. Lorna Kidson's horse cramps up and is eliminated.

At this point we have to digress, and talk about the recent restructuring of French endurance, and we'll try not to bore anyone to death. Put simply, there are now several categories of licence available to French competitors and riders are classed according to category, even though they are doing the same ride... so, if you look at the list of runners and riders for Sangatte you will see that there were five "French Internationals", ten "French Amateurs", and one "French Professional". All foreign riders have to compete with their international licence. Now, Damien Lamoriniere holds a French Amateur licence. This means that he was, in effect, in a different race from Masterson and Kent, and therefore they were in the lead in the international...

Images by Team Nellie
This picture remains essentially unchanged on the second loop, which takes the ride straight from the venue through town, over a motorway and across country to Guines. History buffs will know that Guines was the site, in 1520, of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a week of lavish diplomacy held by Henry VIII and Francis I. Now it is the site of a secondary school whose basketball court and boules piste have been commandeered as the venue for vet gate two. Mercifully the rain seems to be timing its brief respites to coincide with the vet holds, but these are still tricky conditions for crewing horses - they're hot, it's cold; do you cool them, do you rug them? - this is where experience really tells. The UK team have a chef d'equipe, a physio and a farrier along but it's the team vet, Jo Woodman, calm and knowledgeable, whose expertise counts for the most here. Everyone gets through, and the horses are looking better than they did after the first loop. But the next section is the longest, at 37k back to Sangatte, and the hardest, with a 10k series of tough climbs and descents. Leon and Van den Abeele are sitting handy on tough, proven horses...

Your correspondents huddle for warmth in their car, waiting for Lamoriniere to set off. With a couple of minutes to go a van, driven by his mother and with his sister in the passenger seat, goes by. We decide to take a break from map-reading and follow it.

Boulogne is about 25 miles south of Sangatte and it is here, as the van turns onto the motorway heading for Rouen, Toulouse, Spain and points south, that we decide to head back. It's been an interesting drive, down a series of tiny country lanes linking nowhere with nowhere else, and it did seem after a while that they were trying to lose us, but we kept right with them, even when they put on a burst of speed on the main road. Of course, the first thing we see when we get back to where the ride is taking place is the car that actually contains Damien's mum and sister. It's got "Team Lamo" written all over it in quite big letters, just by way of a clue. And it's not as if we've never seen it before. We know them quite well. I like to think of those ladies in their van, two completely random French women, finding themselves being pursued across the countryside by a mysterious English car, as if in a not-very-good film. "It's no good, they're still with us!" "Drive, you fool, drive! Just head for the motorway and keep going!" "Where?" "Anywhere! Spain!"

We catch up with the ride five kilometres away from the venue. Damien is still leading, but where once there was a small posse of English ladies there is now only one horse, Yesmane, who has been ridden out of the pack by Christophe Dupau. The couple were second in this race last year and Christophe is about to push on; doubtless Van den Abeele and Leon will be making their move, too. The Brits heave in to view as we are leaving for the vet gate.

Images by Team Nellie
Xavier Blouin, the imperturbable organiser, has an unusual calculation to make. The tides can be predicted, but not the speed of the riders, so the exact route of the final loop has to be variable. If they are going too fast they may well not hit the beach for the final stretch but the ocean. As it is, Xavier calculates that an extra ten minutes hold at this vet gate - making it an hour altogether - will ensure the tide has retreated far enough for no-one to get even more unnecessarily wet than they already are. Fifty minutes after vetting through there's a compulsory representation,which all the contenders pass, although El Sabio seems irregular enough to Jo Woodman for one of his shoes to be whipped off. Sure enough, there's a flint nestling under his pad. Changing the shoe costs minutes and it's Dupau who keeps his lead, followed by Lamoriniere and Kent. It's an 18k loop, the last seven back on the beach, and as he turns off the coast road onto the sand Dupau's lead is unassailable. Meanwhile Lamoriniere and Kent have been caught by Van den Abeele, Masterson, Leon and young Sandra Dahl, riding Coletto, a stocky flea-bitten grey. Lamoriniere's horse fades as they hit the beach and Spirit, too, falls back. The remaining four stay together until they have about a quarter of a kilometre to go then they sprint for it, Van den Abeele grinning as her horse scatters seagulls, nosing ahead of Dahl to take second place; brave and beautiful El Sabio caught for speed on the sand by Leon's horse who, at eight, is the youngest in the race and having his fourth trip over the distance.

Images by Team Nellie
Was the vetting a trifle lenient at this ride? All the finishers passed final inspection although, to many spectators, there were doubts over one or two. None over Maelle (who presented with a cardiac of only 48 after his exertions) or Epson, who didn't so much trot out as float out. Yesmane was awarded a Gaston Mercier saddle for Best Condition. Xavier Blouin will doubtless hope for better attendance next year, and better weather, but the organisation and atmosphere were faultless. And if it was a workmanlike experience, if competitors were attracted by the opportunity offered to try their horses over a variety of terrain, or prepare for greater things later in the season, rather than the incomparable night-life of Sangatte - well, then, it was a true endurance ride.

Story and Images by Team Nellie - Nicola Freud and Richard Allen